to Dust (Southern)
When the Big Book of Musical-Genre Classification*
is updated in a dozen years or so, expect to see the name
William Elliott Whitmore listed in bold print under the heading
“roots music.” That term has hitched its wagon to a number
of different genres at different times, usually to describe
artists for whom it would be shortsighted to throw in with
the regular “country” or “blues” folk. Whitmore’s poison is
sold-my-soul-at-the-crossroads, swing-low-sweet-chariot Delta
blues—distinctly soulful and steeped more in the sights and
sounds (and other senses) of the American South than much
of the “Americana” fare that’s been hoisting the torch as
of late. Let’s call it Appalachica.
Better yet, let’s not.
The pungent odor of grain alcohol is present in the hearty
“whoa” that opens Ashes to Dust, Whitmore’s third full-length
LP. You can certainly hear it later in “Lift My Jug,” a train-driving,
moonshine-drinking, dobro-blues work song that would have
done Johnny Cash proud. The yellowy film from hundreds of
hand-rolled cigarettes hangs heavy in his weary voice as he
expresses sentiments of both fear and acceptance over the
impending Judgment, the foreboding spectre of death constantly
lurking in the shadows.
The other kind of hard times—lost love, heartbreak,
etc.—fuels the waltzes (“Sorest of Eyes,” “When Push Comes
to Love”), but it’s that first kind that makes for the bulk
of the material. To say Whitmore has a bit of an obsession
with death and dying would be to say that grass is green;
his voice sounds like it’s being broadcast from the Great
Beyond. He establishes the setting in the very first stanza
of “Midnight,” where he calls out to the darkness, “Deliver
me from this hell before I slip.” He’s pointed a direct arrow
to his ancestry with this album: Death is life’s only certainty,
and it was a main catalyst for the Depression-era music that
Whitmore aligns with best. Other meditations on the topic
of generalized woe include “The Day the End Finally Came,”
“Digging My Grave,” and “The Buzzards Won’t Cry.”
The remarkable thing about this recording is that it avoids
resorting to the regular trappings of modern roots music,
leaving Whitmore’s gruff narration (gravelly doesn’t
quite cut it; his voice is better described as razed and/or
wizened) out front with little adornment. There’s little here
to suggest Ashes to Dust is anything more than a modern-day
field recording—percussion is limited to foot stomps and tambourine
slaps, while a simple guitar or banjo strum backs most tunes—and
that’s the way it should be. When a squeeze-box or E-bow does
turn up to add “color,” it’s unnecessary.
These are hardscrabble tunes for hardscrabble times, and it
would be hard to imagine anyone better handling the weight
than William Elliott Whitmore.
* Definitely not a real book.
Fred Hersch Ensemble
of Grass (Palmetto)
I’m not sure where I stand on Fred Hersch’s setting of selections
from Walt Whitman’s great, quintessentially American poem.
On the one hand, I applaud its artistry and seriousness. On
the other, there are times it’s stiff, and how it would translate
theatrically is a question I’m not sure I’d enjoy seeing answered.
“Leaves of Grass,” which will tour, gives “an evening with,”
that excuse for extended repertoire so many rockers deploy
live to reinvigorate their canon, a whole new meaning. It
suffers from some of the same pretentiousness that capsized
“The Raven,” Lou Reed’s insufferable setting of Edgar Allan
I might like this for reasons that have little to do with
music. I admire its politics, for sure. Coming out, as this
does on many levels, is always the right thing.
Musically, Hersch’s “Leaves of Grass” is often lovely, traversing
ballad, jump-style swing, samba, even hints of free jazz.
Kate McGarry sings parts of the front and back affectingly
and straightforwardly, and Kurt Elling, a Chicagoan-like pianist-composer
Hersch, never gives into histrionics—even, perhaps, when they’re
called for. A little less caution would have helped.
When you read Whitman, his flamboyance comes across strongly.
Here, it’s downplayed, as if Hersch so reveres the bard, he
won’t allow his music to express the poet’s exuberance.
Blending Whitman’s free verse with jazz, another quintessentially
American art form, makes sense, however, and Hersch’s Ensemble
is certainly technically up to the task. That Hersch, an avowed
gay man, finds kinship with Whitman also makes sense.
first read Whitman in an American Literature course at the
New England Conservatory in 1976,” Hersch says in the liner
notes. “In particular, the poem ‘When I Heard at the Close
of the Day’ had a huge, validating impact on me, a young gay
man just coming out.”
Hersch didn’t choose the usual Whitman; besides “Song of Myself,”
the selections are lesser known, if no less eloquent than
the more famous “O Captain, My Captain” or “When Lilacs Last
in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Hersch also proceeded organically,
singing the poems to himself until they assumed melodies he
could enlarge for ensemble. As I said, the music is often
beautiful, and demanding: This has the seriousness and finesse
of art song. If Hersch had captured Whitman’s sprawl and psychedelia
more effectively, his ambitious, politically undeniable and
flawlessly executed disc might have swung as hard as the original
and Horrible (Drag City)
and Horrible is, in fact, a long-awaited CD reissue of
the long-player Loud and the EP Horrible by
Half Japanese. Released in 1980 and 1982, these discs represented
the band at their most populated, with six players creating
the friendliest cacophony ever assembled out of rock &
roll’s most basic elements. Loud’s glossy cover said
it all: bright colors and the deceptively astute and controlled
aesthetics of an instinctive artist on the front, with Madison
Avenue-worthy photo vignettes down the sides of the back cover,
bordering a group portrait of the band perched on a stoop
making faces, then embellished with translucent brush strokes.
The set’s 20 songs go to the heart of every great rock song
since the hybrid baby of jump blues, R&B, and hillbilly
twang let out its first screams half a century ago: lust and
longing, romance and sex, and the youthful quest for identity
and acceptance. Even some of the song titles themselves can
knock the wind out of decades of generic inanities. They’re
powerful and direct, but also smart enough to employ punctuation:
“My Concentration, Oh No,” “If My Father Answers, Don’t Say
Nothing,” and “I Know How It Feels. Bad.”
Brothers David and Jad Fair took the duo template of their
previous recordings (some of which were dropped onto an unsuspecting
world in the three-LP box set 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts)
and invited their friends over to make it bigger. Horrible
was five songs built on the enduring glory of monster movies
and scary campfire stories. From the snaky “Thing With a Hook”
to Jad’s breakout screaming on “I Walk Through Walls,” these
songs speed along like a tractor trailer with Ornette Coleman
and Iggy Pop sharing control of the pedals and steering wheel.